To mitigate climate change, governments around the world are engaging in policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Key in this is the movement away from burning fossil fuels. In 2020, 84.3% of the world’s primary energy consumption came from fossil fuels, and fossil fuel consumption has increased by 44% since 20001. Industries contributing to this consumption include electricity production, business and commercial activities, construction, and transport. One of the most widely acknowledged pathways towards decarbonisation is through electrification, the process of replacing technologies that burn fossil fuels with those that run on electricity. This extends beyond exclusively supplying our current electricity demand from low-carbon sources such as from renewables and nuclear, towards enabling transportation, construction, and other activities to be powered through electricity.
Increases in renewable energy production for electricity are frequently highlighted in national policy, for example the UK generates over 60% of its electricity from low-carbon sources (Figure 1), more than double what was produced in 20102. However, total energy production in the UK remains heavily reliant on natural gas and oil, with 70% of the UK’s energy supply being sourced through these fuels, and low-carbon sources supplying less than a quarter. This is because renewable energy sources only produce energy in the form of electricity, but other industries rely on the combustion of fuel. Therefore, in our current situation even if 100% of electricity was produced from low-carbon sources most of the energy supply would still come from burning fossil fuels. This highlights the great potential for decarbonisation if we transition from burning fossil fuels to a fully electric society.
Figure 1 – UK Electricity Generation by Source
International Energy Agency (IEA), 2020
One of the most visible movements towards electrification is in the transportation industry. Electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming increasingly popular in the Global North, and when considering transport is the largest contributor to UK greenhouse gas emissions, electrifying this industry can potentially have a significant impact on achieving decarbonisation3.
However, shifting towards electrification of transport does not necessarily equal an immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing demand for EVs increases demand for electricity, and despite the current mix of electricity production being a combination of renewables and fossil fuels, this increase in demand will likely be sourced through burning fossil fuels as renewable energy capacity is at its limit. Therefore, a complete switch from internal combustion to EVs would lead to an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions4. This may present a false hope in society’s quest to decarbonise – just switching to an EV will not necessarily make it a clean alternative to petrol. To reduce emissions in the transport sector, the electricity supply would need to simultaneously expand to cope with increased capacity, and solely be produced from low-carbon sources. When looking beyond transport to the entire energy mix, decarbonising through electrification requires a vast increase in renewable energy production. Given the time taken to complete infrastructure of this magnitude, it will be decades until this is possible.
Electric Car Charging
A further consideration with electrification is the role of energy storage. Currently, energy is stored in a variety of ways such as in reserves of coal, oil, and gas. However, renewable energy is more difficult to store; water reservoirs can hold energy for hydro power, yet it is impossible to store wind and solar reserves. Often, renewable energy can only be stored after its conversion to electricity, with batteries being the most common form of energy storage. The current dominant technology for batteries is lithium-ion, however these require various metals to store electricity. For EVs, a single battery pack contains approximately 8kg lithium, 35kg nickel, 20kg of manganese, and 14kg of cobalt, as well as copper5. These metals are stored in many countries in the Global South; the Democratic Republic of the Congo holds more than 50% of the world’s cobalt resources, and South America is the primary supplier of lithium. However, these are finite and thus electrification is reliant on non-renewable resources, leading to the question of whether total electrification is possible with current reserves of these metals.
There are enough known lithium reserves to satisfy EV production until the mid-20th Century, however some studies point to limited EV growth beyond 2030 at current reserves of copper, nickel, and cobalt6. Even with more efficient batteries EVs will be replaced regularly, and metal resources will be strained. These projections for metal resources also don’t account for electrification beyond the transport sector. For total electrification to be possible, increased energy storage would be required to cope with this demand. Currently, this is taking form in large-scale lithium-ion batteries, such as Tesla’s Megapack in Australia, which are used to enable the grid to cope with fluctuations in demand. Increasing the quantity of sites such as this will further strain metal resources.
Adopting a circular economy approach by recycling old batteries can partially offset the imbalance between supply and demand for metals. However, at currently technology levels battery recycling is more expensive and polluting than producing new batteries7, and these metals must still be mined to satisfy initial demand.
Lithium Mining – Argentina
The extraction of these metals also raises socio-environmental concerns. Mining lithium is energy-intensive, polluting, and uses great quantities of water. To produce one tonne of lithium by extracting it from brine uses two million litres of water, which is unable to be recycled and is evaporated away8. Brine extraction increases salinity of the landscape, reduces groundwater levels, with detrimental impacts to ecosystems9. The high levels of energy required to run the process can also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions as this will likely be sourced from fossil fuels.
The current pathway towards electrification is also highlights and exacerbates the persistent social inequalities in our society. It is heavily centred around the rich Global North, who are realising the negative effects of climate change and are now willing to act. Currently electrification still produces negative externalities through emissions to satisfy demand and detrimental extraction methods; however, these are shifted away from the Global North to the resource-rich countries in the Global South.
For example, EVs are locally emissions free, and the user will experience minimal negative externalities from them; yet these externalities are focused on poorer areas that are near gas and coal power plants, but particularly on the communities where the required raw materials for EVs are extracted. Indigenous groups, poor communities and the environment suffer because of the actions of the rich in Europe, America, and parts of Asia. These negative externalities are often rarely compensated for; cobalt mining practices are often exploitative, dangerous, and poorly regulated, with children working in mines that produce metals for batteries. Wages are low, and the value is only realised once the final product is produced. Therefore, the profits from electrification are channelled back into the richer countries at the expense of the poor.
Despite this, electrification as a move towards decarbonisation demonstrates an important political and societal shift towards an increased consciousness of humanities harmful energy habits. Yet, its impacts are more detailed than what appears on the surface. Electrification in its current state still causes negative socio-environmental impacts, particularly in areas far removed from the user, but is it a necessary evil to eventually eliminate the need for fossil fuels?
Hydrogen fuel cell technology is touted as the longer-term successor to battery EVs. Generating energy from fusing hydrogen with oxygen removes the need for lithium-ion batteries, existing infrastructure can facilitate hydrogen transportation, and theoretically the only by-product is water7,10,11. Hydrogen can also store energy produced by renewables, and therefore may hold the key to the future of clean electrification12. Currently this process remains expensive and producing pure hydrogen is energy intensive, but the pursuit of electrification and EVs through grid and battery storage may delay advances in clean fuel technology to make it viable, with instead policy focusing on the massive infrastructural changes required to store and distribute electricity in batteries. The vast levels of extraction to produce enough battery storage for electrification may only be a stopgap until hydrogen, ammonia and other clean fuels take over, so are the short-term negative environmental affects from this better than continuing with fossil fuels and pursuing hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels? For the rich countries in the Global North, the answer is likely yes, but for those on the receiving end of these negative impacts their answer may be different.
Overall, certain levels of electrification and battery storage are required to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and move towards decarbonisation. Increasing renewable energy sources are necessary regardless of whether it is stored in car batteries or used to produce pure hydrogen cleanly through electrolysis. Although it will take far more than switching to an EV, society’s focus is now firmly on decarbonisation which can only be seen a positive, and technological advances and investment will continue to be made as consumers become more conscious of their carbon footprint and change their habits. This does however highlight the detrimental effects of global levels of consumption and constant emphasis on economic growth. Transitioning away from fossil fuels only occurs when it is economically viable and profitable, and these alternatives are still heavily focused on extraction and profit. So long as people are making profit from the extraction of metals, lithium-ion batteries will be the dominant technology. If progress was not reliant on market-led development, profit, and investment, a sustainable and clean route towards decarbonisation may not be far away.